“Old Time Movies” in the 20s
As early as 1920, the term “old time movies” was already in widespread usage to describe the “vintage shorts from the nickelodeon era” shown as pre-show attractions. Juxtaposed with the latest features, “The Old Time Movie Show” showcased the technological progress of the film industry since the days of “primitive” filmmaking (xiv). In fact, early silent films, and with them film stars like Mary Pickford, once seen as serious dramas were deliberately presented as “a novelty act that encouraged audiences to laugh out loud at the dramatic shorts of the nickelodeon age” (xviii). Had audiences tastes really become that sophisticated, or had the rapid changes brought on by WWI made everything before seem remote? Whatever the reason, by time The Jazz Singer premiered in 1927 as the first feature-length “talkie,” film collectors feared the whole silent film era would become an “Old Time Movie Show” to the American Public, sparking silent film revivals, the beginning of major film archives like the Modern Museum of Art Film Society, and film history as a field.
Silent Picture Revivals in the Early 30s
In 1930, many silents were still in production, including Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights (1931) that he insisted remain silent, despite the fact that by 1931 83% of theatres in America were wired for sound (6, 67). City Lights incredible success was surprising to many, but not alone among the many successful attempts to revive silent pictures throughout the 1930s.
One of the first attempts to keep silent films relevant after the advent of talkies was to add sound effects and music to old silents. Hollywood even tried to add new footage with singing to old films, such as the 1925 Phantom of the Opera (37). Unfortunately the difference in projection speed made it difficult to synchronize the added sounds, and films were often cut down from the original (38). D. W. Griffith’s 1915, acclaimed Civil War Reconstruction epic The Birth of a Nation was re-released in the early 30s with significant alterations and added sound effects. Not only did the film receive great reviews and was incredibly popular, but this version continued to be in circulation for decades, even once its treatment of African-Americans was extremely controversial (40, 59). Several Charlie Chaplin films also received this treatment with marked success, however they did not lead to wider reissues of Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd silent comedies with added music and sound effects (58).
Sound installation in theatres combined with the Great Depression had left theatre musicians that had once accompanied silent films with full-scale orchestras out of work across the country (64). In Pittsburgh, the company Cine-Music was launched in 1930 and with it a “magical” revival of “an era of exciting entertainment that had seemingly vanished forever with the triumph of sound film” (65). Unfortunately, the grand spectacle of a silent film underscored by a fifty-piece orchestra failed to attract an audience after its first run. By 1931 it seemed that “silents films as a regular featured attraction had largely retreated to the working-class milieu of the nickelodeon age in which narrative cinema was born” (67). In other words, silent films, it seemed, were no longer to be seen on the same grand, theatrical scale as they once had been but as pre-show attractions seen by modest audiences.
However, in the early 1930s silent films saw marked success in urban art houses. At the Little Fifth Street Avenue Playhouse in New York City, silent films were shown regularly among sound films, especially “foreign classics,” such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari or The Passion of Joan of Arc (72). In Hollywood, the Filmarte Theatre became the last to show silents into the 1930s even after it was wired for sound. Silent foreign films and old classics featuring favorite stars were extremely popular, proving that “there are still thousands right in the talkie capital who now and then prefer their screen to be silent,” according to a 1930 newspaper article (73). Audiences regarded the films with humor and nostalgia, cracking up at the clothes of the previous decade (74).
In contrast to the sophisticated art houses that screened silents well into the 1930s, traveling tent shows continued to show silent pictures to small town America where theatres couldn’t afford talkie technology. Since silents, especially comedies, were cheap to purchase, traveling tent shows brought silent pictures to rural audiences throughout the Great Depression, their showings a “tonic” for the hardest hit (78, 79). These silent film showings stood in sharp contrast from the “picture palace glory” of silent cinema in its hey-day to its earliest roots as working-class entertainment (80). No longer at the center of American culture, silent films were pushed to the margins as urban art house or touring road show attractions in the 1930s (80).
Read more about silent film later into the 20th century here.
Learn more about how silent film contextualizes Barbarous Nights here.